Volvér, Philadelphia, PA – A Review

by artfuldiner on October 19, 2018

in Artful Diner Review, Opinion, Pennsylvania, Review, Wining and Dining


300 South Broad Street

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(215) 670-2302


Volver - ExteriorIn April 2014, when Jose Garces’ Volvér made its long-awaited debut in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, almost before the ink had dried on the new menus, professional reviewers (“hired bellies,” as the late Jay Jacobs liked to call them) began to circle like vultures.

The first to swoop in was Trey Popp, then restaurant critic for Philadelphia magazine. He and his wife, indulged in the restaurant’s “Performance” dinner, a 15-course $600.00 (including beverage pairings) extravaganza; each course representing a significant recipe (and story) from Chef Garces’ culinary journey.  Mr. Popp was obviously much taken with the experience, declaring: “At least five (of the courses) ranked among the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten. And all together, they melded with our server’s concise backstories to form a meal that encompassed biography, philosophy, and something akin to meditation.” The conclusion… 4 out of 4 stars – Extraordinary.

A scant two months later, along comes Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer and cuts those stars (or, in his case, bells) in half, noting his “withering patience for egocentric cooking” and concluding “… this experience as a whole, presented over 15 courses and several hours, ultimately felt both superficial and excessive, magnifying the superfluous garnishes as too precious, the tales of Chef’s inspiration amplified to become parodies of misguided hero worship.”

Volver - Interior, Dining RoomOnce again, I marvel at the fact that the same restaurant is capable of generating such widely divergent reviews… Mr. Popp enamored with the experience of the forest as a whole; Mr. LaBan content to bitch and moan about too many individual trees. I freely confess that I have never been a fan of Mr. LaBan’s reviews, finding them disjointed and given to bouts of rambling and downright sarcastic hyperbole – and his Volvér critique is no exception.

Volver - Interior, KitchenHe did, however, perhaps unknowingly, bring up an extremely pertinent point. In another article, in reference to his two-bell review of Volvér, Mr. LaBan had this to say: “I found it telling that I enjoyed it less the more courses there were, rather than the opposite of being transported to a higher plane.” Amazing… what Mr. LaBan, a veteran restaurant reviewer, apparently failed to comprehend is that no matter how pleasant the venue, no matter how accomplished the chef, or how carefully prepared, proportioned and attractively presented the various elements of a marathon-tasting menu, the eye and the palate can only appreciate (and tolerate) what the stomach and the seat can endure. After a certain number of courses, no matter how superb the circumstances and the cuisine, rigor mortis will inevitably set in.

A good deal has changed at Volvér since its 2014 debut. For one thing, the fifteen-course – and then the twelve-course – tasting menus have gone by the boards. The current incarnation of the chef’s tasting menu has been whittled down to a mere nine presentations, which, in my opinion, is still too expansive. The ideal tasting menu is five courses – six at the outside. After that, the prospect of gastronomic narcolepsy begins to rear its ugly head.

Volvér’s exquisitely plated innovative seasonally-driven cuisine is best savored in small installments rather than devoured en masse. And since many of the restaurant’s patrons – this writer and his dining partner included – are often headed to a performance at the adjoining Kimmel Center and not up for a heavy meal, discretionary ingestion might well be considered the better part of peristaltic valor. The à la carte menu is just right for some spirited mix ‘n match grazing; and the three-course pre-theater menu, priced at $35.00 per person (plus beverages, tax & gratuity), is a bargain, indeed.

But be advised… Volvér isn’t likely to appeal to the diehard grab ‘n growl meat & potatoes crowd. The portion sizes here are on the diminutive side, subtle in their preparation, and as artistic and attractive to the eye as they are pleasing to the palate. If you’re in search of a slab of beef hanging over both sides of the plate, you’d do well to look elsewhere.

Volver - Deviled EggWhile perusing the menu and sipping an Amoxicllin – a classy cocktail constructed of gin, lemon, ginger, honey, and 10-year-old Laphroaig – or, perhaps, a glass of 2014 Richard Bocking Pinot Blanc from Germany’s Mosel Valley, one of Volvér’s “Snacks” might be just the thing to assuage those hunger pangs. There’s the Shrimp Toast, of course, or a Mixto of either cheeses or meats… but nothing quite perks up the taste buds – or goes down as smooth and easy – as the dreamily decadent Deviled Egg (pictured). Filled with a silky duck liver mousse spiked with Pedro Ximénez Sherry, one bite of this irresistible treat will have you placing another order at the speed of light.

Volver - Tuna TartareAs you move on to the “Small Plates,” the possibilities range from the semi-simplicity of Winter Lettuces adorned with persimmon vinaigrette and a pumpernickel crisp… to the almost-too-clever bowl of Milk & Cereal, which tastes nothing like what you would wolf down for breakfast… to the absolutely fabulous Lamb Sliders garnished with feta cheese, harissa aioli, and red onion marmalade. My nod, though, clearly goes to the pristinely fresh Tuna Tartare (pictured) that comes replete with yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) mayonnaise, edamame, chili, shiso (an Asian herb similar to mint in flavor) and crunchy garlic toasts.

“Large Plates” continue along the same innovative path. The Wagyu Sirloin is companioned by nury potatoes (enticingly cut to resemble croissants) and Provoleta fondue (Provoleta is the Argentinean variant of Provolone cheese); the Jidori Chicken (consider it the Kobe beef of the winged set) is gently caressed by sherry and foie gras cream.

Volver - Ricotta GnudiMy dining partner decided upon the Ricotta Gnudi. These are gnocchi-like dumplings made with ricotta cheese instead of grated or milled russet potatoes. The result is a lighter, pillowy dish in contrast to the often denser, sometimes chewy gnocchi. Volvér’s rendition is utterly extraordinary. The ethereal dumplings – and there is no other word to describe them – simply melt in your mouth. And, by the way… while the portion sizes – even the so-called “large plates” – may be on the diminutive side, the ingredients are beguilingly rich. The gnudi, which are accompanied by a smattering of fava beans, English peas and wild mushrooms, are bathed in a lavish brandy parmesan cream sauce. Cholesterol counters beware.

Volver - Market Fish - BarramundiMy Barramundi – the white-fleshed fish of choice on menus recently – was somewhat more subdued, but still surrounded by a number of luscious traveling companions. The filet, sweet, succulent and meaty with a clean mild taste that is similar to halibut, arrived at table swimming in a sensuous sea of celeriac emulsion and truffle jus. Wild mushrooms and a tiara of watercress played strong supporting roles, providing a nice textural contrast and splash of color, respectively.

Desserts vary with the seasons… they also depend upon your menu. Should you be sampling the nine-course chef’s tasting menu, for example, you’ll currently be treated to both the Harbison: Asian pear, pear pâté de fruit, black pepper caramel, marjoram oil, and walnut crumble; and the Maple Yogurt Panna Cotta: green apple sorbet, kiwi, cider, and whole wheat tuile. The pre-theater menu features Bonne Bouche: chef’s selection of pastries. Finally, the regular à la carte dinner menu offers a choice of two desserts: Orange & Pistachio Parfait and Cocoa Choux with chocolate sablée and chocolate mousse. My dining partner and I sampled both and they were light as a feather on the palate and top-notch in every respect.

Volver - BarVolvér gives diners a choice of two dining venues: the jewel-box dining room with a high-tech open kitchen (pictured above), and the delightfully bustling bar/lounge (pictured here). Both, it should be noted boast a wall of windows overlooking Spruce Street. While the dining room is more sedate, I much prefer the bar’s lively vibe. Even if you’re not having dinner, it’s a marvelous stopover for a craft cocktail, glass of wine and/or some sophisticated snacks.

Whether attending a performance at the Kimmel Center or merely doing a bit of shopping in Center City Philadelphia, if you enjoy fine dining, a visit to Jose Garces’ Volvér is simply not to be missed.

Bon Appétit!


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